Top immigration judge issues memo calling for quick deportation

It's going to be harder for immigrants to win their court cases.

FILE In this April 4, 2017 file photo, the Supreme Court in Washington. A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday, June 12, 2017, struck down part of an unusual immigration law that treats fathers and mothers differently when it comes to conferring citizenship on children born outside the U.S. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE In this April 4, 2017 file photo, the Supreme Court in Washington. A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday, June 12, 2017, struck down part of an unusual immigration law that treats fathers and mothers differently when it comes to conferring citizenship on children born outside the U.S. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Chief immigration judge MaryBeth Keller issued a memo Tuesday calling on all immigration judges and court staff to prioritize the quick deportation of immigrants with pending court cases, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice memo.

In the memo, Keller provided guidance for immigration judges to efficiently adjudicate cases as quickly as possible to lessen the growing backlog of court cases.

The judge pointed out that “frequent and lengthy continuances,” which grant immigrants more time to present supporting evidence, were a significant contributing factor to the backlog of pending cases. Keller advised immigration judges that there is a “strong incentive by respondents” to “abuse continuances” because delays work “to the advantage of the deportable alien who wishes merely to remain in the United States.”

“[I]t is critically important that Immigration Judges use continuances appropriately and only where warranted for good cause or by authority established by case law,” Keller wrote. “It is sound docket management to carefully consider administrative efficiency, case delays, and the effects of multiple continuances on the efficient administration of justice in the immigration courts.”

In her guidance, Keller issued a general policy of: issuing at least one continuance to be granted to immigrants to find legal counsel; allowing immigration judges to use the overall complexity of a case to determine whether a continuance should be granted for more attorney preparation time; not granting continuances for merits hearings unless there’s a “genuine showing of good cause or a clear case law basis;” and reviewing continuance requests from DHS attorneys to allow time to complete background investigations and security checks.

What’s pertinent about the memo’s guidance isn’t just that it now makes it harder for immigrants to prove their court cases. While everyone is entitled to due process, immigrants are not guaranteed lawyers in civil proceedings unlike prisoners in criminal cases. That means immigrants held in detention centers in remote areas rarely have access to adequate legal representation in the first place.

The memo comes at a time when the Trump administration has strongly pressed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to detain mostly undocumented immigrants who are national security and public safety threats for deportation proceedings. But since Trump’s inauguration, DHS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have not exempted the detention of any category of undocumented immigrants, including those without criminal records and would have been considered low priority under the previous administration.

The memo’s guidance also calls into attention the more than 610,000 pending cases on the immigration court docket, gathered from the data records and reports website Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse maintained by Syracuse University, with roughly half of all cases centered in California, Texas, and New York. Between December 2013 and 2016, then-President Barack Obama tasked immigration judges to prioritize the deportation of tens of thousands of Central American children who had fled violence in their home countries through a “rocket docket,” which required attorneys and judges to speed through court proceedings to process immigrants.

Since Trump became president, he has signed executive orders requesting more money for more detention space to hold immigrants; more ICE agents to go after immigrants across the country; and money to pay for more immigration judges.